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Animated characters are usually geared toward children, and for this reason, a quick glance at the cartoonish images of "A Klondike Tale," Avery Veliz's planned feature length film set in Skagway, may lead viewers to a false conclusion. Namely, that this is a gentle story, one that willingly covers over the harsh realities of greed, corruption and prostitution rampant in Skagway in the 1890s, or at least one that treats them with disparaging humor.
But this is not the case.
Featuring a host of real-life characters such as Soapy Smith and Slim Jim Foster, Veliz's animated story doesn't shrink from the grim truths of the day, and contains many actual events and details, such as Smith's fake telegraph office and the dolls used to indicate prostitutes' availability in Skagway's saloons such as the Red Onion.
"This is a very serious story," Veliz said. "Although a lot of the art is very kid-friendly, the story has a lot of deep undertones that may not be appropriate for kids."
Veliz's creative map for the work-in-progress is laid out in a book, also called "A Klondike Tale." The book and 12 printed images will be on display and for sale at Zephyr on Friday as part of the First Friday Art Walk (see Page C8).
Veliz, who studied illustration for film and animation at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, wrote and illustrated the story contained in the book. Her sketches and digital images show her creative process in formulating the story and hint at what the film would look like on-screen. She also includes a textual version of the story at the beginning of the book.
The story, in abbreviated form at this stage, tells of Soapy Smith's reign in Skagway and the effect on those around him of the greed and corruption he epitomized, particularly the reaction of five Tlingit characters. Most of the Tlingit characters, represented as both animal-spirits and humans, attempt to push back against Smith and his ilk, and provide a counterbalance to Smith's corrosive influence on the town and the land around it. Prostitutes such as Mae provide another important aspect to the story, as she and her peers are trapped in Smith's world.
For Veliz, 25, the story is more than a professional project; it brings to the surface elements she's seen and heard her whole life. Her family has been based in Juneau since 1914, and though she went to school in Denali she spent every summer here, and grew up with an appreciation for a history of the area.
"I've always been fascinated by the Chilkoot Trail and the Klondike Gold Rush," she said. "I did hike (the trail) when I was 10, but I was really fascinated with it even beforehand."
Though Soapy Smith and his crew are compelling - and perhaps repulsive - characters, the story resurfaced in her mind with the image of a totem pole awakening on a mountainside, releasing the five animal-spirits held in the carving - eagle, orca, wolf, bear and beaver.
"A lot of the story is about contact, and when white men first come to the area," she said. "It's about that confusion, 'What do we do about it?"
Each of the five Tlingit animal-spirits spend much of the story as their human counterparts. Though Eagle is the most powerful character of the five, Veliz has placed Beaver and his human equivalent Swiftwater Bill in the main role. His character branches off from the other Tlingit spirits after he discovers the power of gold in that culture.
"He's got a lot of gold in his creeks and his streams and he realizes that that's what the people are after," Veliz said. "He doesn't place any value on it until the people come and the greed comes and the corruption comes. So he sells out basically to become one of them, and becomes really popular with the people and forgets the Tlingit world."
The incorporation of the Tlingit characters allowed Veliz to tap into another childhood appreciation: Her love of Native art. She remembers gazing at totem poles in Klawock as a young girl while visiting the family cabin on Prince of Wales island.
"I am really fascinated with the Tlingit art form, and the form-line and the graphic quality of it. And the fact that they use totem pole carvings and flat graphic artwork helped me to be able to transform things from 3d to 2d and back again."
Veliz has carried aspects of Tlingit form-line design over into her non-Native human characters as well, most notably in the dark-set, mask-like eyes and ovoid shapes, to make them look like they are all part of the same world.
Though the subject matter is difficult and often grim, the story succeeds in bringing about a positive outcome. For one thing, Soapy's reign as 'King of Skagway' comes to an abrupt end.
"There's a lot of historical context I had to keep true," she said. "He still gets shot in the end of the story, so that's not a spoiler."
The main female character, the prostitute Mae, also manages to find redemption.
The design for Mae, like Veliz's other female characters, is reminiscent of the artwork of French painter Toulouse-Lautrec - and this is a well-considered decision. Toulouse-Lautrec was active at the same time as the Klondike Gold Rush. In addition, his milieu was not all that different, as he favored images of Moulin Rouge can-can girls and the men who watched them. His bright, garish color palette also provided inspiration.
"Some of his pictures are hard to look at because it does create an emotion in you... his color palette is almost meant to make your stomach turn over," she said. "And I kind of wanted that with my villains, you've got the puke green with the oranges. Its usually not a pleasing mix but somehow it works."
Veliz said she has already stirred interest in the movie through her blog, averylveliz.blogspot.com, and received a very positive response. She plans to stay right here in Juneau to promote the book and eventually other Alaska stories.
"This project made me really homesick," she said. "I really liked California, but after I started getting into this project I knew I had to come back."
Contact Art & Culture editor Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.